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By the Code of Soil

Making a case for the benefits of a digital computer virus

Author: Kasia Molga, Artist

As soon as the word “virus” appears in a conversation, there’s a sense of unease, awkwardness or even panic. For good reason: being associated with contagious behaviour, viruses affect the state of equilibrium and often make the host unwell. In a similar way to the biological world, there are worms and viruses (and many other concepts inspired by nature and the animal kingdom) in the realm of digital. Needless to say, the fear of a computer virus infecting other computers through the network is similar to the fear of being infected by a disease. Especially when we consider our personal devices, which could be described as an extension of ourselves.

Scientists argue that viruses have been crucial to our evolution – the constant battle between pathogens and their hosts has long been recognised as a key driver behind evolution. Similarly, within the realm of computing, viral infection is inseparable from the field of cyber security. By constantly testing and improving, cyber security measures strengthen network health, negotiate infection and ensure the safety of data. Besides, viral methodologies play a huge role in the evolution of our habits and behaviours in and outside of the digital realm. These behaviours or habits might be mainly linked to consumerism, with a lot of them now strongly rooted in our way of living. Just like the biological virus, which infects one cell and then replicates to take over a whole group of cells, viral marketing material is sent first to a few users who pass on information further, and so the message spreads exponentially.  

The idea of the virus and viral is an important part of my current collaboration with the GROW Observatory, who have commissioned me to create two artworks responding to the work they do. At the centre there is soil (an organic entity, vital to all life on earth) and the Internet of Things (a digital network of technological devices). As I’ve discussed and written on many occasions before, Soil and the IoT – with all their complexity and endless possibility for interpretation – have perhaps been my most challenging commission as an artist, so far. While I’ve just started work on the second of these commissions, I want to talk about the first – By the Code of Soil – which harnesses soil moisture data from thousands of GROW sensors across Europe to create a unique digital artwork.

During the R&D phase of By the Code of Soil, I spent a few months analysing the importance and meaning of soil. I investigated the processes happening within soil and their impact on us as humans – growers, farmers and people like me (city dwellers who spend much of our time in front of computer screens). I listened to GROW scientists and their concerns about the future of soil. I also spent time analysing data from GROW sensors and the Sentinel-1A satellite, which is used by scientists to asses the surface moisture of Europe.

With access to all this knowledge and data, I couldn’t stop myself wondering:  how can I convey the vitality and presence of soil in such a way that it is impactful and can reach the biggest possible number of people? How can soil sneak into every day – quietly and gently, but still announcing its presence?

And so, I designed and released a computer virus.

I have to pause here for a minute and add a little disclaimer: By the Code of Soil does not harm anyone’s computer or collect personal information. It doesn’t install malware, self replicate or transmit any infection to your hardware. It is more of interruption or a friendly message which aim is to remind to people like myself, who spend most of their time in front of the computer screen, about the “analogue world” – full of forces determining the condition of our physical-selves.

To create this virus (so I am not alone in this “crime”) I invited a few collaborators to work with me: my friend, music composer Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), my regular collaborator and creative tech artist Erik Overmeire, and my new collaborator (and another amazing creative tech artist), Dan Hett. We also received crucial support from talented developer Jessica Winters, while Future Everything has produced this work.

By the Code of Soil can be described then as a harmless computer virus, which when launched on the participant’s  computer, manifests itself as a sort of animation where the image and sound directly respond to data from the GROW sensors installed across Europe. Various parameters such as moisture, light, temperature, soil texture or season dictate how the visuals and music are formed. That way, although based on a template, the animation and sound are a bit different every time when experienced.

The artwork takes control of user’s computer for a minute or two in full screen mode. It manifests itself in a quite unexpected manner – that is it only will become visible on the computer when the Sentinel-1A satellite passes by the computer’s location – approximately twice within 24 hours but never at the same time of the day.

Don’t worry, if you’re in the middle of a video conference or an important business presentation – there’s plenty of warning and you simply hit the ESC key to kill the virus.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and sketching the digital visual representation of soil, asking myself (and often feeling the futility of this exercise) how to express through cold digital pixels something so amazingly complex and organic and alive with millions of living organisms as soil? And how is it possible to make it in such a way so that the ever-changing data can be visualised and sonified – creating a meaningful a/v narrative?

My starting point is a pixel and a matrix – a single grain like a grain of soil, based on which a whole image is created. The visual noise – just like the white noise of a TV screen at the end of the broadcast day – it only comes to life when a process or algorithm is active. Various configurations of the noise – its frequencies, shapes, speed of motion and sizes – reflect the moisture, light, temperature and texture of the land near to the participant’s computer based on its IP address.

The sound was also a big challenge for Scanner and I, with a task to compose audio files in such a way so they can respond and reflect values of various data parameters which then when clustered together by incoming data, would convey the concept of soil and its conditions.

These words from Scanner describe this process very well: “Trying to score data was a seemingly impossible task. How to soundtrack something that is ever changing, ever developing, ever in flux, refusing to remain still. Most times when one accompanies image with sound the image is locked, only to repeat again and again on repeated viewing. By the Code of Soil refuses to follow this pattern. Indeed it wasn’t until I watched the work back one evening, having last seen it the previous morning, that I realised how alive data can really be.

The only solution sonically was to consider sound, like soil, as a granular tool. The sound needed to map the tiniest detail of alterations in the data received so I created sounds that frequently last half a second long and map these across hundreds of different possibilities. It was a like a game of making mathematics colourful and curiously one can only hear it back by following the App in real time. I had to project into the future what I felt would work most successfully, since I never knew how the data would develop and alter in time either. As such the sound is as alive as the images, as malleable as the numbers which dictate their choices. Data agitates the sound into a restless and constantly mutable soundscape.”

To experience the By the Code of Soil then only three things have to be done – go to the website and download the app. And then wait.

Waiting is an important part of By the Code of Soil. Unlike the aforementioned viral marketing used by marketers and advertisers to utilise fast and wide outreach for quick profit (usually), with this work about soil and its conditions I want to show the unpredictability of natural and organic forces, and their place within the digital domain. Nobody, as per publish date of this article (26th of January 2019) has yet seen the artwork – it is slowly evolving. Just as the land sleeps during winter preparing for the aliveness of Spring, By the Code of Soil is waiting for the first 1000 app downloads in order to blossom and reveal itself to the world on participants’ computers. It is quite unnerving actually as we are so eager to share this data-driven, soil-conditioned a/v set of performances with everyone who downloaded the app. But patience and contemplation are missing from our fast networked, high bandwidth orientated culture, so we feel that it is important to include the element of slowness to the whole experience.

Jussi Parikka – a Finnish new media theorist once wrote: “Nature as a mathematician—a problem solver—is an idea with earlier roots. It is constantly referenced in descriptions of natural processes in scientific and popular science literature. For example, insect colonies are often portrayed as perfection machines, i.e., models that have a lot to teach us about optimization algorithms”.

Why is it then, when there is so much talk about Internet of Things, with all things and entities immediately accessible through a constant stream of data, the slowness and sometimes even stillness which is very much present in nature, are missing from this conversation? Just like some viruses who sleep within the host’s body, and then wake up when time is right.